Brave New World

Idyllic images of swimmers coursing through sparking waters open American director Terence Malick’s new film, The New World, only his fourth in a career spanning thirty years, but a beautiful and wholly individual take on the familiar Thanksgiving legends that surround the establishment of Jamestown in Virginia in 1607, the first stage of what became America. That the music accompanying the swimmers is Wagner's ‘Das Rheingold’, German chamber music, will indicate to attentive viewers (and you have to pay attention to Malick) that the director is laying the ground for the head-spinning clash of cultures the exploring English encountered and exploring the way those two worlds collided until, as we now know, one engulfed and destroyed the other.

Malick frames his point in a triangular love story, with the pivot being the Native American princess Pocahontas (although she's never referred to by that name), played by the astonishing teenage newcomer Q'orianka Kilcher, and the two very different settlers she loves. On one side is the bedraggled Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), among the first arrivals and a proto-Renaissance man who quickly learns to respect and admire the “naturals”. Politics and society however, conspire to separate the two, just as their relationship offers hope of peace and mutual assistance between the starving settlers and the suspicious native people. With Smith otherwise occupied, by order of the King, Malick introduces John Rolfe, played with tremendous delicacy by Christian Bale, a wealthy tobacco plantation owner, who Rachel, as she is now known, marries and bears a son by. Various fleeting subplots surround the central story, represented by crazed priests, politicians and starving settlers. As with The Thin Red Line, the ensemble of actors pop up here and there, some barely registering in their couple of scenes while others disappear altogether into the background. Nothing is explored in too much depth, because the thing would be three days long if they were. Better to use short scenes and moments of metaphysical poetry to communicate the chaos on both sides.

Splitting the worlds, and the heart of the cast, is the ethereal Kilcher; a tremendous, wide-eyed presence, brimming with heart and youth, and soul when required. When lathered in Disney's anti-bacterial soap, Pocahontas became little more than a cute metaphor for an unspoiled land, a kind of Earth Mother totem pole; but Malick, a philosopher as much as a filmmaker, allows Kilcher to deliver a remarkably assured and natural performance as a real person, not only reclaimed but re-animated from the popular cartoon. For her more seasoned co-stars, this cannot have been an easy film to make, but Farrell and Bale both provide sterling support, with the Dubliner delivering his most natural and compelling performance since his debut turn in Tigerland. Around them nature, light and sound, is as much a character, with the physical landscape literally breathing before us through a beautifully judged ambient soundtrack.

Although some story elements are entirely fiction, Malick has gone to tremendous efforts to ensure his film is absolutely as it was 400 years ago in every other regard. He filmed along the Chickahominy River, very close to the original Jamestown settlement. His rough-hewn, hand-built sets, realistic costumes and armoury help to ground the carefully constructed atmosphere and dreamlike mood. Visually, Malick and his ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki present a deluge of arresting and original images, brought to the screen without the aid of electric lighting. The results might not have the same heavenly glow of his other pictures, but it was a brave move, totally in keeping with his requirement for realism. Malick can make a kennel look like a cathedral, and his film is a masterclass in crafting a story from little more than light and magic.

Maybe it’s just as well its beautiful and absorbing, because there is very little spoken dialogue. I didn’t mind the silences (not least because there are very few real silences - there's a gentle ambient sound track throughout). I found it oddly dreamlike, as I expected, but entirely involving, which I didn't. As he does, Malick also fills his gaps with murmured voiceovers; snatches of thoughts or diaries that might not tell us much more about the story, but drag you into the characters head, adding a rich complexity to what we do know.

The film builds to a fascinating last act, with Rachel and Rolfe summoned back to England to meet the King. This development provides the film’s emotional heart, with Rachel wandering through a finely realised London, it’s wet, grey streets and heaving crowds with the lush forests. Those who know the story know what happened next, with Malick choosing devastatingly effective shots of a freshly made, empty bed and a still, darkened Native face to represent his conclusion, a moment that sings off the screen with heart and wisdom and genuine emotion.

As in the similarly themed WWII morality tale Thin Red Line, where humans fight a vicious war against the backdrop of a shrugging natural world, Malick is telling a traditional American cinema story in his own, decidedly non-traditional way. In allowing the camera to linger unhurriedly, occasionally for longer than the viewers gaze can hold, or in cutting to a random scene of brutality or madness, Malick is making his film exactly as he wants to. Bitching about its exorbitant running time and narrative longueurs is to miss the whole point. If it was any different, it’d be another man’s film. Something else altogether, and a lesser thing at that.

The way commercial movies are constructed now, the unfamiliar attention a film like The New World (and Micheal Haneke's Caché) requires can split an audience right down the middle. Impatient viewers might baulk at another shot of distant birds flying in formation across a huge, bruised sky or a series of composed visual haikus on the way water falls on rocks or how leaves fracture sunlight into rainbows. Malick’s approach might strike you as either totally immersive and rewarding or maddeningly dense and boring. Or somewhere in between. Personally, I loved it, but seeing as it might be another five years or more before we see anything like it again, I'm prepared to debate it for the sake of argument.

Seoul Assassin

Death comes dropping slow in Korean director Kim Jee Woon’s (A Tale of Two Sisters) new crime thriller A Bittersweet Life. For seven years, loyal Sun Woo (Lee Byung-hun) has acted as a mob enforcer for a mafia syndicate led by the elderly President Kang (Kim Young-chul), under the cover of managing the swanky ‘Dolce Vita’ bar. One day, Kang asks Sun Woo to do him a personal favour: He must go out of town for a few days on business, and needs someone to keep an eye on his young mistress Hee Soo (Shim Min-ah), who he suspects might be seeing another man behind his back. If she is indeed cheating on him, then Sun Woo must use his considerable killing skills to settle the matter. Sure enough, Sun Woo catches the girl in her innocent deception, but rather than murder her in cold blood as per orders, he allows her and her terrified lover to live, as long as they swear never to see each other again.

It's this simple act of mercy, wholly out of character, that will ultimately cost Sun Woo dearly.

A poignant, molasses-black and aesthetically flawless revenge story, Bittersweet is another top-notch film from the hugely impressive Kim Jee-woon whose expert touch leavens the frantic and bloodsoaked action with moments of comedy, physical bravado and touching silence. Lee Byung-hun, better known in Korea as a classic romantic male lead, is a terrifyingly internalised and psychopathically remote presence here, playing the handsome, ruthless gangster with an assured confidence and calm that gives tremendous grit to his bloodsoaked adventures. He is, oddly, very likeable. Shim Min-Ah offers the perfect mix of naivite and sexuality with Kim Young-chul’s duplicitous leer perfect for the vicious mob leader; a preening pecksniff doling out punishments or reward with a wave of his cufflinked hand. The remainder of the ensemble cast are uniformly marvellous, making scenes that might appear derivative or stale seem fresh and exciting again when redrawn through the broken prism of the new Asian cinema.

Throughout, the film contains sly, perfectly judged homages to David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and even the frantic 80s bullet ballets of Arnold Schwarzenegger; all filtered through the individual eye of the director, who has crafted another memorable, visually splendid film that holds untold riches for the growing legion of Korean cinema fans, and fans of noir cinema regardless of origin. Technically flawless, narratively fluent, boasting an impressive soundtrack, a grinding sound mix and some wonderfully staged and genuinely stomach-turning violence, Bittersweet is the work of a master filmmaker at the top of his game.

*** It occured to me as I was posting this review that I never got round to talking about how almost every major character in the movie ends up with major damage to their left hand - usually the effects of a shotgun blast. Did anyone else notice that and has anybody any idea what it might mean? I'm thinking "if your left hand offends you, cut it off", like in the Bible, except here there's a bad guy with a bowie knife to save you the trouble...***

Sayuri, We Hardly Knew Ye

Memoirs Of A Geisha, the picture-book new film from Chicago director Rob Marshall doesn't pretend to be a complicated drama, but the source novel, Arthur Golden's best-selling 1997 potboiler, never had pretentions of depth either. Instead, both book and movie provide a lush, immaculately detailed and visually absorbing portrayal of a peculiarly Japanese world, that of the special class of paid female companions, artists, musicians and, to be blunt about it, chatteled sex workers: the geisha.

The film opens with an almost silent sequence that highlights the considerable talents of young actress Suzuka Ohgo playing the frightened young Chiyo, taken from her impoverished family
in 1929 and sold to a renowned geisha house in Kyoto. Here she is subjected to cruel treatment from the owner Mother (Kaori Momoi), who works the little girl to the bone, with Chiyo’s slavery made even more unbearable by the malignant attentions of Hatsumomo (Gong Li from Raise the Red Lantern). The reigning queen of the geisha house, Hatsumomo realises the threat the newcomer represents, not to her present, but to her inheritance, and cruelly engineers her isolation, especially from her only friend, Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh). She frames Chiyo for a minor crime, which leads to her being sold to Mameha (Michelle Yeoh, also from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), a beautiful geisha in her late thirties who is the companion of the Baron (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and his friend, the wealthy Chairman (Ken Watanabe from The Last Samurai). With Mameha’s careful tutelage, the shy and withdrawn Chiyo becomes the radiant geisha Sayuri, the talk of the town and a famed entertainer. The girls have been carefully drilled to realise that love has no role in their new world; that these men are clients, not potential husbands. The distinction between these women and prostitutes, and the geisha and a wife is made clear, with politically motivated flattery replacing the honesty of romance. Nevertheless, Sayuri falls in love with the Chairman, always keeping his dropped handkerchief and a newspaper photograph in the folds of her kimono.

The casting is excellent throughout, although there was some controversy about casting Chinese actresses in the lead roles of what is absolutely a Japanese story. Ken Wanatabe is the only Japanese actor in a major role. All I can add to the debate is the observation that whatever rivalries exist between nations today can’t inform how films are made, or for that matter, reviewed, and that far more troubling to me was that the film is made in in English, rather than Japanese. But subtitles would limit the box office potential of a film like this to a mass audience, so the occasionally indistinct and far less subtle lingua franca of international finance wins out in the end.

Regardless of how she delivers her dialogue, Ziyi Zhang (House Of Flying Daggers) has the face of an angel, sometimes blank and serene but always filled with subtleties and tiny human gestures that add tremendous soul to her performance. For his part, Watanabe’s Chairman, representing an idealised concept of love for the innocent Sayuri (his dropped handkerchief becomes her prized possession) plays a storybook romantic ideal, capable, brave and kind. But their gradual coming together takes a back seat to Sayuri’s own coming of age, which, once achieved, leaves the remainder of the broadly drawn, essentially formulaic Cinderella melodrama with nowhere to go. Still, it is a lovely thing to look at, and sometimes that's enough.

In one way, the painstaking approach to the first two-thirds of the film, the precise and painstaking recreation of this complicated world, is to be applauded; it’s slow unravelling setting a totally immersive, captivating tone. However, the film as a whole never recovers from the brutal intrusion of the Second World War and the subsequent occupation of Japan by the beer-swilling, skirt-chasing Americans. A subplot running through the film that highlights how these young women were cast against each other as rivals falls flat in it’s clumsy resolution, with the viewers attention taken more with where they are (and how gorgeous it all looks) rather than what they are saying to one another or what it means to Sayuri’s desperate love. Marshall has conjured up a lost world with considerable fluency, but the magic of the film is in it's recreations, almost alien in their exoticism, and not its uninvolving emotions.

One of the primary reasons to recommend Memoirs is the beautifully composed, opulent imagery of rising Australian cinematographer Dion Beebe, who takes his inspiration from Japanese woodblock prints and the Shinto belief of Suijin, or water-worship, to create deep, graduated landscapes, swooping perspectives and moments of breathtaking visual poetry; like a sequence representing the end of the war, a stream running with what appears to be blood becomes images of Sayuri hand-washing a red obi. You won’t see a better-looking film this year, it’s a triumph of photography and production design and costuming, but once these images fade, you might be left wondering what happened to the story, which never achieves the same level of careful detail and, well, cinematic craftsmanship.

Trading Places

Anand Tucker's Shopgirl is the adaptation of Steve Martin’s popular but essentially gloomy novella, his first work of fiction, which has more life on paper and in the mind of the reader than it does when played out on the big screen in three dimensions.

Country girl Mirabelle (Claire Danes) is a shy, withdrawn retail assistant, new to LA, who works at the quiet glove counter of a big department store, but spends her days mostly staring off into space, dreaming of love and escape. One evening, while washing her smalls in one of those Laundromats beloved of screenwriters, she meets Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman), a random, completely uninhibited and rather scruffy wannabe musician and amplifier salesman. They go on an awkward date, gingerly feeling one another out (rather than up) but there is little spark between them. However, Mirabelle is just lonely enough to call him again, and they start a clumsy, uncomfortable physical relationship. So far, so awkward.
Enter the other side to the potential love triangle, the wealthy middle-aged businessman Ray Porter (Martin himself, who looks like he's had some sandblasting done to his face, especially around the eyes). Mirabelle and Ray start to see each other, and before too long their relationship escalates into something more substantial and rewarding than Jeremy had to offer. But for all his impoverished stains and filthy hair, Jeremy was a young man with a heart, which might be worn on his sleeve, but is undeniably still beating. Ray, for all his money and the freedom it brings, is shallow, self-obsessed and faintly creepy, something Mirabelle gradually comes to realise.

Shopgirl has tremendous potential, being a fragile and undeniably heartfelt film about lonely and isolated individuals struggling to find purchase in an oblivious and uncaring LA. But realising a wholly compelling feature film from Martin’s slight, 120 page book is a task that proves beyond director Tucker (Hilary & Jackie). What starts out as a quirky, bittersweet romance becomes an almost static minimalist tapestry, with too little of the comedy that Schwartzman is keen to provide left to lighten the mood. Most disappointing is the statue-like central performance from Daines, which has plenty of heart and wrinkle-browed yearning but is overly controlled and precise. Most of the time it feels like she is just sitting there.
Tucker does employ his keen visual sense on occasion to break the mood with some assured and delicate photography, but the film’s determined anti-romantic point of view never really admits us and is altogether far too downbeat and mopey to make any real connection. It’s not much of a watch, but when compared to Martin’s other recent offering, Cheaper By The Dozen 2, it’s a fucking masterpiece. Modern love isn’t the only thing that’s not funny anymore.

Full Mental Jerk Off

“Are we ever going to get to kill anyone?” asks a soldier at the start of British director Sam Mendes' new film. No, they’re not, and it’s the lack of events or purpose that makes Jarhead a different kind of antiwar film - a war film without a war. In it Tony Swofford, played well enough by Jake Gyllenhaal, enlists as Marine, the title comes from the corps nickname, and after training is seconded into an elite division of snipers. Paired up with a spotter, played by Peter Sarsgaard, the 20 year old Swofford is sent to Kuwait in 1991 as part of Desert Storm. But the soldiers don't get to do much of anything when they get there, other than conduct patrols through the desert and perform drills and demonstrate their fancy equipment to uninterested journalists, with the gradual disconnect from home, from government and from the business end of the war itself driving them close to a kind of madness. Their cold-eyed tormentor in the desert is Staff Sergeant Sykes, played by a macho Jamie Foxx, who maintains a rigorous sense of discipline combined with a juicy sadistic streak. Once the actual conflict begins, the troop spends their time mopping up the burning oil fields or on patrol along the burnt-out cars on the infamous “Highway of Death”. Crucially, they never get to kill anyone; an impotence and lack of purpose that builds slowly into frustration and anger.

Mendes is certainly building towards saying something; that war isn’t just stupid, it’s dumb. That modern warriors are likewise, a dumb lot of undereducated teenagers fooling around with dangerous technology, just like their real heroes on the PlayStation. But Mendes never fully captures that cocktail of adrenaline, testosterone, cordite and disappointment in anything other than a baldly literal sense. In bleaching his story of colour, glamour, jingoism and irreverence as thoroughly as his photographer Roger Deakins washes out his widescreen desert images, Mendes throws the juice out with the bones. Unfortunately for moviegoers, random events and haphazard situations that lead nowhere doesn’t make for much of a movie, and despite a good handful of these scattered moments being both funny and horrifying and pretty faithful to Swofford’s memoir, they don’t add up to anything like a film. For all his awkward name-dropping and ironic posturing, Mendes achieves nothing like a coherent tone or a meaning - not that I’m looking for an explanation for the war or a discussion about American militarism or for the director to propose a reason why men go to war, but a meaning for the film itself. Jarhead doesn’t mean anything. Swofford is pointedly reading The Stranger, with Mendes attempting to capture the same tone as Camus’ narrator, who knows what has happened, but not why or what it means or why it has happened to him. Maybe it’s supposed to be like an absurdist Beckett play; Waiting for Saddam, perhaps. If it is, then Mendes has spent his down-time watching a whole lot of other, better war movies. In sifting through the dust of a genre that has already been well served, Mendes, unsurprisingly, finds nothing at all new or all that compelling to say. When there is a nation that has lost everything, including its freedom, at the heart of your story what sympathy can there be for a boy soldier who is bored and going through a bit of an identity crisis? Swofford and his fellow Marines complain bitterly because the methods of modern warfare means their lives are never in danger and they get to go home safely. How disgusting a notion is that? Those of us old enough to have watched the news in the early 1990s already knew about the Highway of Death and the burning oil wells and the buried troops. It doesn’t add much to see them recreated in a desert in New Mexico. What does it add to either film to have us watch Gyllenhall and his whooping buddies watching the Ride of the Valkeries scene from Apocalypse Now? I get Mendes' point that anti-war films can be misconstrued; that which is supposed to repell us can excite us instead, but other than that? Not a whole lot.

Much like Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket it's the first half of the Jarhead (the arduous training segment) that says most about the process of preparing for war, with the second half descending into a chaotic, random, anti-linear stream of events. Mendes consciously and repeatedly recalls Kubrick’s film, similarly made on painstakingly recreated locations on the other side of the world and featuring a story split between the process of turning young men (conscripts in his case) into soldiers and sending them off to do the killing. Except Kubrick was talking about a different war in different times, and had a different opinion. He saw Vietnam as being an inevitable extension of political ideologies, but also as part of the innate split in the human personality; ‘the Jungian thing’, as he describes it in the unforgettable grave-side scene between Pt Joker and his commanding officer. But to take this down from the clouds for a moment, Kubrick also had a script, dialogue, events and personalities. He had a point to make. Kubrick’s grunts too were brainwashed, over-drilled fighting teenagers, engaged in a war the filmmaker opposed, but he never forgot that they were also characters in a movie and that there would eventually be a paying audience of people requiring entertainment and food for thought. Mendes, for all his artfulness with the camera and facility with the actors, forgets.

If the director and his screenwriter Broyles (a Vietnam veteran himself) felt the need to add their tuppence to the arguments for or against the decade of war and sanctions in Iraq, why use other filmmaker’s words and images in order to make their point? Swofford’s book was praised on publication as being a unique voice that related the truth as one soldier saw it, a blistering peek behind the curtain of official military propaganda and news journalism. Why wasn’t it good enough for Mendes, or is he incapable of anything other than ironic detachment? His take on the story is just a pretext for photography. To drive home the true obscenity of war the movie needed something like the stomach-churning sequence in the book in which a fellow Marine finds an Iraqi soldier’s corpse and systematically mutilates it for several days, until Swofford finally steals the body and buries it in the desert. There is nothing as strong or as clearly morally defined in Jarhead, and it’s to the film significant disadvantage that Mendes didn’t have the courage to include it. By ramming his influences down our throats, Mendes only highlights his own film’s lack of anything interesting or novel to say about the mistakes that US administrations repeat again and again perhaps or, if that’s beyond him, offer any real insight into those young Americans buying KitKats at Shannon Airport this morning.

Jarhead’s scenarios are supposed to recreate the bemused atmosphere of what it was like to be a gun-toting soldier readied for action in a war won in the air, a war they were never likely to take an active part in, a war that was over in a couple of weeks. The overwhelming sense of frustration his plot brings about might well be Mendes’ avowed intention, but it makes for a pretty tedious movie. He is a smart, energetic director, and willing to take on something new in each of his three films to date, but in the end Jarhead is just as coldly beautiful and unfeeling and inhuman as his duff gangster movie Road to Perdition. And if that’s the whole point, well, you can go tell it to the marines.

(the image above is 'Guantanamo' by British artist Banksy and is his copyright)

Interview: Neil Jordan & Pat McCabe The Rocky Mountain News

I’m laughing at a story about an actress on a short film misreading the stage direction ‘hovering’ for ‘hoovering’ when Neil Jordan pokes his head around the door and asks where he can smoke a cigarette. “Outside? Oh, Jesus”. I go with him, half wondering if I should take my recording device (I don’t) and as we smoke we talk about how the whole country got all worked up over Willie "Oh'Dear" O'Dea being photographed pointing a handgun. “What’s that all about?” asks Jordan, by way of introduction to a minor rant about the insular nature of Irish Sunday newspapers, which, according to the director, have no idea that there’s a wider world out there. “The Rocky Mountain News has more in it”.

I don’t encourage the thread of conversation simply because I don’t read Irish Sunday newspapers (or The Rocky Mountain News for that matter) and am slightly worried that if I make agreeing noises he might ask me for an example and I’d be stuck. I mutter something to the effect that the country is reeling under the weight of endless tribunals, sleazy scandals, bad politics and paranoia, and that we’re playing catch-up with ourselves. Jordan gives me a hard look, grunts, and his attention is suddenly taken by something opposite. He steps back a bit, then leans forward and peers down the side street. “Nice alley” he says and pops his butt in the ashtray on the wall. As we saunter back up the stairs, Jordan shows me an email he received that morning, claiming to be from the CIA and warning him about some hacker having gained access to his computer. Sounds like a scam, I say, although as with the Sunday papers thing, I’m edging towards the fullness of my knowledge on the subject. He calls the number at the end of the email. It is a real phone number for the actual CIA, and a computerised voice tells him that, yes, the dire warnings in the email are part of a moneymaking scam and not to do anything else but delete it. “That’s that”, says Jordan, “excitement over”.

The al fresco cigarette, the ironic politician, the scam spam email and the pocket computer itself are so startlingly modern they throw the greasy scrabbling of early 1970s Ireland, when the kaleidoscopic Breakfast on Pluto is set, into sharp relief. Moving between a small country town and the bright lights of London, the Butcher Boy director’s second collaboration with Monaghan writer Patrick McCabe follows, Candide-like, the random exploits of Patrick ‘Kitten’ Braden, played by Cillian Murphy. Kitten is the result of an affair between a young woman (Eva Birthistle) and a priest (Liam Neeson), who once he's old enough, searches London for his mother and looks to make peace with his father back home. A capricious, clever and deceptively tough young transvestite, Kitten creates elaborate fantasies to escape the drudgery and pain of his isolated existence before the real escape of emigration. As Jordan gets up to close the window, I ask McCabe, who has joined us for our conversation, if he could think of another Irish filmmaker who could have taken on his novel. “No, no, it’s all too ah…too particular. There’s definitely a mood that carries from the Butcher Boy directly into this film”. I ask how they first became interested in each other’s work. “Well, we’re two Irish writers, and we’re coming off the same page in many ways”, says McCabe. Jordan pipes in, “I read The Butcher Boy basically and that was the first time I came across Pat’s work. And Pat wrote this immediately afterwards and I read it as soon as he was happy for me to see it”. McCabe comes back, saying he knew Neil’s work “for years before he had ever heard of me, ever since The Crying Game”.

Neil Jordan is just about the only pure Irish filmmaker, in that he sets out to make a different movie every time and somehow ends up saying the same things over and over again, finding new and original ways to reflect on his obsessions. Since his first film Angel in 1982 to the smash hit Crying Game in 1992 and Interview With The Vampire in 1994, he’s been inspired by childhood fairy-tales, outsiders, oblique symbolism and, ultimately, survival to redemption. Also a writer (although curiously, he has never adapted one of his own books for the screen), Jordan is enjoying a particularly juicy creative burst as he enters his mid-fifties; his new film follows 2003’s The Good Thief, producer duties on two recent Irish films, Intermission and The Actors, the publication of his fifth novel ‘Shade’ last year and the news that The Borgias, his long-delayed film about the notorious Italian family will finally go into production next year with Scarlet Johansson and Colin Farrell attached to star, although that announcement came too late for me to discuss with him. He lives in Dublin with his second wife and five children. On the day I met him he was just off the plane from the US leg of the Pluto promotional tour, had a new copy of Robert Fisk’s ‘The Great War for Civilisation’ under his arm and was wearing a speckled shirt with an interesting collar.

Patrick McCabe looks a bit like Jordan’s younger, weirder brother. Similarly stocky and direct, the Monaghan novelist and playwright is a stone-cold original with a considerable reputation. His five whirling, surreal, pop-culture books read like the 1975 Jackie annual chopped up with the Book of Revelation; featuring extraordinary, individual people in strange and uncomfortable places. They are also frequently hilarious. His 1992 book, The Butcher Boy, a black comedy narrated by a disturbed young boy in small town Ireland, was filmed by Jordan in 1996. He lives in Sligo with his wife and two daughters. Both Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto were short-listed for the Booker Prize and his latest novel, Call Me the Breeze, was published in 2003. Bearded and bluff, he had no weighty tome about international relations with him that I could see, and was wearing a blue crew-neck woolly jumper.

When it came time for these two writers to write a screenplay, how did the collaboration work? “Well from his book, Pat wrote the first draft, I wrote the second and the third” says Jordan. McCabe takes a mint from a dish on the table, pops it in his mouth and says that “the film is much more Neil than me”. Both writers are at pains to explain that Breakfast on Pluto isn’t a sequel to The Butcher Boy. McCabe sees the film as fitting with a general theme in Jordan’s work. “Maybe. It’s even a bit like Angel too, if you want to go back that far, which is about innocence and the investigation of innocence and what it means when it is destroyed. You could say that The Butcher Boy is about the destruction of a child’s innocence and Breakfast is about maintaining that state of grace, regardless of what’s going on around you. If there was anything in what you’re saying, about it being seen as a sequel, it’d be something like that”. Jordan, who has been listening intently to his co-screenwriters explanation, adds that his new film and their other collaboration “if you think about it”, have more in common. “They’re both about growing up, fundamentally – childhood or adolescence in a small Irish town, yeah? They’re both, in a strange way, about characters who refuse to grow up. Butcher Boy is about Francie, who never becomes an adult (McCabe grunts his agreement, ‘oh yeah’). And I think Breakfast is about Kitten, young Patrick, who refuses to let his own innocence be destroyed, yeah? So in a way they’re both about people who refuse to grow up, with one of them ending up bloody and monstrous and the other ends up being redeemed in a way”. “Bang on”, says McCabe, sucking on his Murray Mint. “Oh yeah”, replies Jordan, “and that’s what I liked most about making this film. Everything in The Butcher Boy was edging towards darkness and apocalypse and blood, and here, the character himself transforms everything into a day-glow fairytale, and I’m not talking about fantasy or inner dreams, he actually constructs a fairy-tale around himself, it’s his solution”.

McCabe, just as stocky and square as Jordan but with a profoundly more open disposition, has a cameo in the film as Peepers Egan, a local man. I ask him if he spent much time on the set, outside of his performance. “Oh yeah, well, it’s very interesting making a movie and I love hanging around anyway. When you’re just sitting around writing stories. It gets you out of the house”. Jordan gives a big sigh. “Every writer just wants to get out of the house, you know.” McCabe agrees. “They do really, sure it drives you mad”. Out and about or not, Jordan is a notoriously difficult subject to interview. He doesn’t pretend to enjoy the process of talking about himself or his work, and seems incapable of offering pat, polished anecdotes, the familiar, pre-assembled witticisms that slip easily into a comfortable celebrity puff-piece. He thinks before he answers questions, often falling into silence, or disagreeing, or answering a question with another question. He’s not difficult or obstreperous; he’s precise, which can be just as maddening. I ask them both about dealing with the IRA in their work, looking at Jordan’s seeming obsession with the North and citing the obvious points of connection in the director’s own back catalogue. Jordan claims he doesn’t understand what I mean, so I explain further, saying that someone from the outside looking in would find it difficult to differentiate between say, Jordan’s IRA pub-bombing and the psychological weight that carries here and a pyrotechnic sequence in a Bruce Willis action movie? It’s not meant as an explicit criticism, but it sounds like one, and a clumsy one at that. Jordan just looks at me. McCabe answers, gently, saying that the IRA is at the heart of the film. “How would you deal with a young kid living on the border in 1971 without having the IRA involved? How would you do that? Given the subject matter in the film, we couldn’t avoid it”. But, I say, Jordan has gone over this ground again and again. What elements of the North, for both writers, add up to make a drama? “Well, yeah”, Jordan replies, after a silence. “I made a movie about Michael Collins, I made The Crying Game and Angel, but one of the reasons I put off making Breakfast on Pluto for so long is that I didn’t want to deal with the issue of political violence immediately again”. “Well”, says McCabe, “I can see how this would be much more of a problem for Neil than it is for me. I haven’t dealt with the IRA before in my work. The book is set in the borderland in the 1970s, so like I said, it’s unavoidable. But the quintessential IRA movie, outside of Michael Collins, simply hasn’t been made yet. It’s like a movie you’d make about Sarajevo in the nineties, like a Battle of Algiers or something. But that’s for someone else to make and write. I don’t have that kind of mind, and maybe that’s the movie you want to see, but this film doesn’t purport to deal with those issues. The IRA in the context here represents a threatening, sinister, outside force, like a pack of wolves. A film dealing directly with the IRA and covert forces in NI would be far more politically complex than what we’ve done here”.

One thing that’s fascinating about the strange world of Breakfast on Pluto is that things are never spelled out in black or white. Everybody is ephemeral, socially, sexually, politically; a turbulent ensemble cast of characters that are all open to interpretation while resisting any neat categorisation. McCabe sucks his mint, meditatively. “It prefigures the modern world, I think. Someone was saying to me, I think it was Gavin Friday (who plays showband leader Billy Rock), that a lot of the characters are people that you just didn’t see in fiction in Ireland, even if they were right there in front of everyone. They just weren’t part of the dramatic landscape, they were swept under the carpet. Now, in the modern world, we can address them because all these things are all out in the open. They had a peculiar kind of ambience feeling about them – because of it being the early seventies, where there was a lot of depression, really, and alienation and silence. So the period that it’s set in is very significant”. He’s warming to the theme, and stretches out in his chair as he expands. “The seventies were such a weird time, really. Just looking at something like ‘Reeling in the Years’ (the archive show from RTE), it seems to me now that fashionwise, politics wise and socially wise, it was all very strange and you’d find yourself wondering what were we all thinking, watching it now”. It’s like a different planet, I say, cheerfully alluding to the Pluto of the title. A bus roars by outside. McCabe sucks his mint and Jordan sucks his lemon. I use the resulting silence to ask another question.

The film’s simple chaptered structure hides a complicated, constantly shifting mood of alternating light and dark. His voyage of self-discovery leads Kitten through an ambivalent landscape, being at times light and playful and at other times heartbreakingly violent and grim. “Well, that’s what I wanted to do, so yeah, that the way it is”, says Jordan, hardly impressed with my indelicate reading. McCabe jumps in, saying “you always get that when people are talking about the troubles in the North. It’s either laughter or disaster, like. Excessive sentiment mixed with hilarity”. Jordan interrupts. “Well, talking about the politics of this film, I never thought that I’d be in Crumlin Road Jail shooting a scene for a movie that involves a bomb-making factory and a guy in PVC leather who waltzes in and annihilates everybody with a perfume spray. I just didn’t ever think I’d be allowed to do that in Crumlin Road jail, you know what I mean? It really was interesting making this film because that issue is out of bounds, it’s…dead in Irish life now. You cannot”. He stops to correct himself. “I don’t mean dead dead but it’s gone somewhere different and now its part of the past. So that was one of the things I found refreshing about the film was the central character’s attitude was so irreverent and so…clear, in a way. Kitten expresses such irreverence for traditional Irish pieties, you know? Whether it’s Nationalism or the Catholic Church or the glamorisation of what they call ‘men of violence’ and all that sort of stuff. There’s no better de-glamoriser than Kitten, really. That’s what, well, that’s why I decided to make the movie in the end, because the central character puts all that shit in its place”. It’s the most Jordan has said since he got off the phone from the CIA half an hour ago and there’s a beat while myself and McCabe absorb it. I wish I had a mint to suck on.

I ask McCabe about the kind of women he had in mind when he sat down to write them in the first place. “It was Dusty Springfield I was most thinking of”, he says, “and at that time I was playing her music over and over again”. Not seeing the connection immediately, I ask him to explain, which he does, rather randomly. “Actually, I think that where I was coming from was perhaps Denis Nielsen, you know, the serial killer. When I went to London first in the seventies this guy was running riot and a lot of the boys he killed were Irish, who were never reported or recorded. At that time, London was a very strange place and you could easily end up on the streets. I remember a guy saying to me, ‘You know you could make a lot of money flogging your arse down Piccadilly’, you know. Jordan pipes in, “You know some guy said that to me too”. He repeats a line from his movie, in a sleazy English accent, “A young Irish lad can make a lot of money…” We’re laughing about the very different directions life could have taken for both these men when McCabe cuts through it. “But that’s what I’m saying, imagine if that had happened? It’s like Martin Amis said, ‘fiction is an opportunity to live life twice’”.

Jordan isn’t just a powerful writer and strong visualist, after more than a dozen films he is one of the finest ‘actors’ directors working. How does he draw such strong performances from his cast, and his actresses in particular? He takes the compliment with a nod and says, “I don’t know how other directors work, because I’ve never seen another director working. Its one thing you never get to do when you make films, you don’t get to see how anyone else does them. I know Mike Leigh doesn’t have a script and I know, well I dunno, you know, other people go through long periods of improvisation and workshops but I don’t do any of that really. I just cast people who will approach the part from the inside and who will explore the character with me. Some of that comes from the fact that I have generally either written or co-written the script, so I look for an actor who will basically go on a journey with me and approach what they do from terms of character and nothing else”. Murphy gives an extraordinary performance in the film; delicate and sympathetic without being overly sentimental or schmaltzy. In his best role yet, he is camp and funny and rebellious, but it’s obvious from the first time we meet him that Kitten’s fabulous extrovert exterior is masking some serious emotional pain. “Well”, Jordan explains, “shortly after we’d written the script, I did tests with about ten young Irish actors, and for Cillian, well, you were there Pat”. McCabe nods his head emphatically in agreement as Jordan continues; “At the time I didn’t know if the part was playable as we’d written it. If someone was to do it very camp, very outrageous, I wasn’t going to be interested in that, like Cage Aux Folles or that remake they did in Miami with Robin Williams, The Birdcage. If it would have been like that I wouldn’t have been interested. But the first time we met him, Cillian gave this performance that really came from the inside. It wasn’t about the fact that he was wearing a purple feather boa or had a bit of blusher on his face, it was about a boy. He made it very emotional and very real and that’s when I thought that if I was to make the movie, Cillian should do it. It goes back to what I was saying earlier. He approached it solely from the point of view of character. With Cillian playing him, Kitten became almost real; it was as if the character drove the movie forward. So unique and so special, and so recognisable in a strange way”.

It’s a performance that is just starting to get recognition from Murphy’s peers, with his indelible flounce adding to his already sturdy international reputation and, more specifically, building significant noise on this year’s awards buzz grapevine, recently garnering a Golden Globe nomination for the 29 year old Corkman, a high-profile nod that is seen as a precursor to the Oscar nominations, even if only because the movie websites keep saying it. Jordan expands on his star. “Kitten displays all his nobility through remaining an individual. It’s about the struggle is to survive, to keep his soul intact. Isn’t it? To keep his innocence, to be kind. Every circumstance Kitten confronts in the movie would convince him not to be kind, wouldn’t it? He refuses to let that happen, and that’s what the triumph of the film is, really. He even refuses to hate his father, despite what he has done to him, which makes him really interesting”.

Jordan has predicted my next question, but this is the most he’s said for quite a few minutes, and the clock is ticking, so I’m reluctant to interrupt. “Ultimately”, he continues, “everybody in the movie, no matter how awful their journey or how badly they have behaved, arrives at a kind of peace. They become good”. He looks across at McCabe. “We should have called it How To Be Good”. He turns to look directly at me. “But, isn’t that the interesting thing? One of the first things Pat did when he wrote the first draft of the script, from the book, was he brought Fr Bernard back and made him have a change of heart. I saw that and thought it was very interesting. You’ve got a priest, who hasn’t raped his housekeeper as the child imagines, but he has had a relationship with her and they had a child together and, eventually, he returns at the end and has this total change of heart. So that’s one thing, right. But the other thing is, that in order to complete that change of heart, he has to be rejected by the society that made him what he is. So in order to become what a priest should be, he has to stop being a priest. To me, that’s very true of Irish life. I know everyone’s always banging on about the church and whatever, but that situation was created by the culture here. Liam’s character, Fr. Brendan, as soon as he takes Kitten and Ruth Negga’s character Charlie into his parochial house, it’s burned to the ground by his own congregation. And that would have happened, or worse. But this is a film about the past. Definitely about the past”.

I ask both men, about the same age and from similar backgrounds if they have made peace with growing up in the slate-grey Ireland of the 1970s. “The film is about a world where the only escape was England, you know”, says Jordan. “The only escape from that severe insistence that you be Irish and Catholic and whatever, unemployed generally and grim and depressed. I remember that very well, London was the great escape for people of my generation. Everybody went”. McCabe interrupts. “It’s what I call Stonewall Ireland. You know, the Sawdoctors”. Er, what? “Hmm” says Jordan. “Yeah, but if you look at Charlie, Ruth Negga’s character. She’s pregnant and unmarried. She needs either of two things; an abortion or healthcare in a hospital, yeah? She has to go to England in order to have that choice to make that. Now in our movie, she chooses to have the child, but she could just as easily have had an abortion. But she has the child in an NHS hospital. She wouldn’t have had that opportunity in the town she comes from. If even if she was sent to Dublin, the child might have ended up in a home. So, this film is a portrait of a society that was deeply unfunctional. Is that a word? Dysfunctional? Whatever. It did not function”. I make the point that Charlie’s fictional child would be my age now and how London is no longer the only answer for Irish people in their early twenties. “Oh yes”, Jordan says, slapping the table, “the country has changed, for the better. No doubt about that”. “Oh yeah”, says McCabe, “no doubt about that”.

Music, specifically bright, sad teenage pop from the era, is central to Breakfast on Pluto. The title itself comes from a song by Don Partridge, a one-man-band folk singer who still goes by the moniker ‘King of the London Buskers’. The Glam Rock era isn’t just channelled through the bubblegum soundtrack though, Roxy Music singer Bryan Ferry is cast as a sinister spiv and the hilariously glam showband that Kitten joins for a while is led by former Virgin Prune Gavin Friday. I ask both writers how the soundtrack and the film’s practical music scenes came about. “There was one song I would have loved to have in it, but we couldn’t get it or it was forgotten or something”, says McCabe. “Oh yeah”, says Jordan, “what was that?” ‘Which Way are you Going, Billy?’ by the Poppy Family. “But the book was written with loads of songs in it, wasn’t it?” says Jordan. “Oh yeah”, says McCabe, “sure you could see the whole world through songs”. “Wasn’t Honey in the book, and Sugar Baby Love and Don Partridge, obviously?” says Jordan, tapping on the table. “Yeah, yeah”, McCabe replies, more than a little wistfully. “But when we were listening to music back then and hearing about these things called niteclubs, we were just dreaming about women” says Jordan. “Yup”, says McCabe, emphatically. “It was all about women. Sex! Or the prospect of it”. Jordan jumps in, saying he remembers “sitting in a squat in North London and hearing that Peter Green from Fleetwood Mac had had a bad trip and wasn’t ever going to recover”. McCabe claps his hands with delight in the shared memory. “I remember this. He was dragged away by his nails that night shouting ‘a coalman’s life is the one for me!’ over and over again. Thrown into a van he was. He played in the Hillgrove Hotel in Monaghan two years ago there, and I went along to see him”. “You did not”, says Jordan. “I did, and he was very good”. But Kitten could have become a casualty too, I say, trying to bring the conversation back from the mists of half-remembered rockers and bad drugs. “But he did become a casualty, didn’t he, says Jordan, gently. “Becoming a rent boy and all that”. And he adds a coda in a breathlessly coquettish tone, “but he survives, you know."

Match Point

It’s not just the much-heralded exile in London and the sympathetic bosom of the BBC that marks Woody Allen’s attractive new drama out from the couple of dozen or so films he has made in his native New York. Match Point is a whiplash drama featuring a cast of mainly British and Irish actors, a couple of torrid sex scenes, gritty violence and, most surprising of all, after a run of six apathetic duds, it’s really very good.

Retired Irish tennis pro Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) is working as a backhand coach in a private club when he meets Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode). Wealthy, well-connected Tom has a pretty, vacant sister, Chloe (Emily Mortimer). Chris, seeing his chance, quickly marries her, much to the delight of family patriarch Alec (Brian Cox), who gives Chris a job in one of his companies. The juicy apple in this rarefied Eden is Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), a neurotic American actress who might be out of work, but has Tom as a rich and generous boyfriend. Before long it’s game set and match for Chris and Nola, with their affair forming a devastating love triangle that has violent consequences. From there on, Allen pulls the strings on his story with the finesse and aplomb of a master puppeteer, so if you think you know where all this is heading, think again.

Johansson and Rhys-Meyers are well cast as the sexy, smooth-skinned lovers, the desperate social climber Chris, constantly checking his watch with more than a touch of Talented Mr. Ripley-style menace, and Johansson gobbling up her part as a seductive, vindictive temptress with relish. Rhys-Meyers has never been better (in that previously he’s never been any good at all) but the film lives or dies by his lethal, oily Chris; it’s his story, and he plays it brilliantly. Around this glamorous pair there’s excellent support from Brian Cox, James Nesbit and Matthew Goode in particular. A minor niggle being Emily Mortimer’s Chloe, who is a bit too eager and unquestioning to fully convince as a woman immersed in snooty, fast-moving London society.

But as Allen’s beautifully poised story hurtles towards a reckoning, the director nods towards Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment, Dreiser’s A Place in the Sun and his own Crimes and Misdemeanours in postponing or abandoning as obsolete the justice Chris so richly deserves. As a story about the randomness of life and the role of luck, both good and bad, Match Point is an enjoyably dyspeptic meditation on just how rotten it can all turn out, and how unfair and uncaring the universe is. Best of all, Match Point is a good story, well told. It’s Allen’s best in yonks and a skidding u-turn on the road to nowhere the now 70 year old director seemed himself fated to travel.

A different kind of 'Year in Film'

A Norwegian blogger called Erik took a photo out his window every other day for a year and pulled the images together into a beautiful, silent, two minute film he's posted online here.
Perfect for those deep January thoughts of another year and the passage of time and the changing of the seasons and all that.